More wordplay: John 15.2-3 *updated*

Posted: 30th October 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

Updated: Added Richmond Lattimore’s translation as well as the full NEB translation to the latter part of this post. Also added the NLTse for yet another approach.

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Kenny Pearce added a comment to the BBB post on translating puns regarding the wordplay in the opening verses of John 15. Most traditional translations word it this way:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (TNIV)

or

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. (NASB)

Kenny observes that, in most translations, the word “clean” (Gk. katharos) seems to “come out of nowhere”, especially when we compare “clean” to “cut off” or “takes away” (Gk. airō) and “prune” (Gk. kathairō), which seem to be different actions. However, we have to think about cutting off and pruning in an agricultural sense, where removing withered wood or extra shoots allows the main branch to produce a greater harvest. Kenny concludes that he has “no idea how, in English, to make both verses make sense at once while showing the connection between them” without footnoting this sense of kathairo, which most translation do, as shown here in the NET Bible’s notes:

Or “trims”; Grk “cleanses” (a wordplay with “clean” in v. 3). Καθαίρει (kaqairei) is not the word one would have expected here, but it provides the transition from the vine imagery to the disciples – there is a wordplay (not reproducible in English) between αἴρει (airei) and καθαίρει in this verse.

Once again, it is useful to step outside the mainstream of Bible translation and look at some other examples of these verses.

Here is Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

Every branch which bears no fruit he takes off, and every one that does bear fruit he keeps clean so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean, because of the word I have spoken to you.

And here is the New English Bible (NEB):

Every barren branch of mine he cuts away; and every fruiting branch he cleans, to make it more fruitful still. You have already been cleansed by the word that I spoke to you.

In both of these translations there is no mention of “pruning” — rather than maintain the wordplay between the Greek airō and kathairō, the translators have gone immediately to the sense of the word that ties to v.3, emphasizing the relationship between kathairō and katharos

When the Revised English Bible (REB) translators revisited this passage, they made a simple addition that actually restores the relationship between all three words:

Any branch of mine that is barren he cuts away; and any fruiting branch he prunes clean, to make it more fruitful still. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (REB)

Here we see that the REB has returned to the traditional sense of “prunes”, but adds the adjective “clean” to clarify the action from an agricultural sense as well as make the theological connection to “clean” in v.3. 

Finally, the NLT takes a very different approach:

He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you.

Woah! There’s alliteration and then there’s alliteration: produce, prunes, produce, pruned and purified! One almost wonders why they didn’t translate the Greek airō as “purges” instead of “cuts off”… Here the NLT uses “pruned and purified” rather than “clean” as the translation for the Greek katharos; with this approach, they’ve maintained the idea of “cutting” and “taking away” throughout the entire passage.

A literal purist might object to the addition of a word or two in these last two examples, but it seems to me that making the relationship between the three Greek words more obvious in English is part of the point and goal of functional translation. Yes?

P.S. Be sure to see Peter Kirk’s comments below for some additional insight into these Greek verb forms.

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    There is more to this pun than you have noticed. The verb form kathairei, in an unaccented text, can be derived from two different verbs, either kathairo “cleanse, prune” which is derived from katharos “clean”, or kathaireo which can mean “take down” or “take away”. The latter is a compound, a contraction of kata-haireo. Then if we look at the other verb here airei, in an accented text this is clearly from airo “take”, but in an unaccented text we can also read hairei from haireo, a different verb but with a rather similar meaning “take” (and the root of hairesis “heresy”). So the second verb can well be read as the first one with the prefix kata- “down”. The adjective katharos in the next verse tends to resolve the ambiguity in another direction, but this would be appreciated only by readers who knew their Greek well, that katharos is not in fact a compound of kata- with something else. Thus there is a multitude of possible word plays here in this probably deliberately enigmatic discourse.

  2. Thank you, Peter – I really appreciate the insight. The overlay of “heresy” on this passage has some interesting considerations, especially related to the context in the letters of John of the “antichrists” then coming from within the Church.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Well, I wouldn’t make too much of the “heresy” link which is very remote. It is related the middle voice of haireo meaning something like “choose”, perhaps originally “take oneself away, separate oneself”. But in John it is God who does the taking away.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    I had difficulty processing the versions which only used “clean” with no connection to pruning, since I don’t sense any semantic link between cleansing and pruning. So I appreciate the way the REB links all three words together. I can comprehend “prunes clean.” I’ve never heard it before, but it makes sense.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion of the word plays in translation, ElShaddai. I recall hearing a Bible Societies consultant give a talk once on trying to retain a word play in one of the minor prophets. It’s worth the attempt, if it can be done somehow, I think. Somewhere there is a balance in all of this between ensuring that the basic meaning is communicated while trying to include aesthetic features of the original forms.

  5. Wayne: I don’t sense any semantic link between cleansing and pruning.

    I wonder if that sensing is something you either “get” from having worked with plants and trees, or you don’t. I too appreciate the REB’s attempt to link all three verbs, even though I do understand “prune” as cleaning a branch.

    The direct connection in a vineyard was underscored for me in Bruce Wilkerson’s book, “The Secrets of the Vine”, where he’s talking with a vineyard owner about cleansing and pruning the vines. The owner’s point was that vines were too valuable to just be cut off without attempting to clean them and bring them back into production. For Wilkerson then, another sense of verse 2 might be:

    Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He lifts up, cleans it off and helps it flourish again; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.

    Instead of “take away” meaning “cut off”, Wilkerson read it to mean “lift up and clean”. I don’t know if that’s bad translation and application, but his imagery was effective.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, I agree with you about the semantic disjuncture between cleaning and pruning. ElShaddai, I think your Wilkerson example is a good one.

    The evidence from Greek before John is that καθαίρ* [kathair*] is for cleaning. Neither this verb nor the compound (for “take away”) that you mention, Peter, seems to have been typically used with vines and branches.

    The more usual verb for pruning of branches is ἀποτομη (apo-tomé, or to “cut off”). For example, here’s from Plato’s Republic (353a), in a discussion about the proper tool for specified word:

    “μαχαίρᾳ ἂν ἀμπέλου κλῆμα ἀποτέμοις καὶ σμίλῃ καὶ ἄλλοις πολλοῖς”

    “You could use a sword-like-blade to cut off vine branches and a knife and many other [instruments]”

    (The root of this word for pruning, τομη or tomé, to cut, is the same as the root for the Greek verb for circumcision–“περι-τομη,” per-itomé, to “cut around”)

    John, I think, is translating Jesus’s Aramaic in order to pun in Greek. He’s using the clean-up metaphor with vine branches.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    That should have been: Plato’s Republic, “…discussion about the proper tool for specified work.” A knife, a blade like a sword’s, or other tools properly are for cutting off vine branches.

    No mention of these tools or of pruning good branches in John 15, so it seems. Leviticus 25:3-4 (in the LXX) shows the root-word τέμνω temno (to cut) in the Greek context of vine pruning.

    If John didn’t read his Plato, then I think there’s plenty to suggest he might have read his Greek Bible, which says:

    ἓξ ἔτη σπερεῖς τὸν ἀγρόν σου καὶ ἓξ ἔτη τεμεῖς τὴν ἄμπελόν σου καὶ συνάξεις τὸν καρπὸν αὐτῆς
    τῷ δὲ ἔτει τῷ ἑβδόμῳ σάββατα ἀνάπαυσις ἔσται τῇ γῇ, σάββατα τῷ κυρίῳ· τὸν ἀγρόν σου οὐ σπερεῖς καὶ τὴν ἄμπελόν σου οὐ τεμεῖς

    Brenton translates that Greek into this English:

    “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shall prune thy vine, and gather in its fruit.
    But in the seventh year [shall be] a sabbath, it shall be a rest to the land, a sabbath to the Lord: thou shalt not sow thy field, and thou shalt not prune thy vine.”